Far better Man than Master or Monsieur

Countdown to cheltenham: A month from the Festival, Greg Wood looks at the value left in its showpiece
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The Independent Online
Over the next few weeks, Lambourn's local chemist may notice a sudden run on tranquillisers. At the off-licence, sales of the hard stuff will go through the roof. In the run-up to the Cheltenham Festival, the slightest setback in a horse's preparation can force it to bypass National Hunt's richest meeting, and the trainers and stable staff know only too well that out there somewhere, there may be a stone with their horse's name on.

The potential field for the Gold Cup, which takes place four weeks today, is already established. There will be no dark horses emerging at this late stage. What can be expected, though, is a number of defections, as minor irritations throw into disarray training regimes which have been worked out to the minute. For this reason alone, ante-post betting on the big race is perhaps less attractive now than it was two months ago, but careful scrutiny of the lists still reveals some intriguing possibilities.

Anyone thinking of backing Master Oats, Jodami, Barton Bank or Merry Gale would now be insane to do so before 16 March. Their preparations are complete, and their Gold Cup odds are most unlikely to contract significantly before race day, and they may well take a walk, particularly in the case of Master Oats. The major bookmakers hold significant liabilities about Kim Bailey's chaser, who has been supported to favouritism from 16-1 and more.

The on-course bookies at Cheltenham will have no such worries, and by the middle of the Festival's third afternoon are generally in need of a second car to carry their profits home. They can be expected to oppose Master Oats with great enthusiasm, especially if the ground is good or faster. A starting price of 4-1 or more would not be a surprise.

The only horses worth backing today are those who are approaching the final prep race. Two contests of serious interest remain, the Jim Ford Chase at Wincanton a week today, and the Racing Post Chase at Kempton two days later. Monsieur Le Cure, last season's best staying novice, will line up for one of these, with the choice dependent on which offers the better ground. John Edwards, his trainer, said yesterday that he was still mystified by Monsieur Le Cure's poor run at Haydock last month and believes his chaser to be returning to his best form. Punters, however, may find it harder to forgive or forget (he was an odds-on favourite), and he cannot be supported until his well-being is confirmed.

One Man is a better bet by far. The easy winner of the Hennessy Gold Cup has not run since falling at Wetherby on Boxing Day, but his absence is by design and not as a result of his accident. "Gordon [Richards] believes in giving his horses a break in January, in fact he basically closes down," John Hales, One Man's owner, said yesterday. "It's not a bad thing, as we've had mudbaths all through January. Gordon is very pleased with him, he's being aimed at the Racing Post Chase and then it's off to Cheltenham, hopefully."

One Man's Gold Cup quote is among the few with scope for significant shrinkage, and a small interest at 10-1 in the run-up to Kempton is advisable.

The Fellow, last year's winner, may seem generously priced at 16-1, but he now seems unlikely to defend his championship. Of more interest to backers is the arrival yesterday at the same price of Miinnehoma.

The Grand National winner was cut to 16-1 from 20-1 by Ladbrokes, and the hint may be worth taking. Miinnehoma's campaign this year has been constructed apparently with a second success at Aintree in mind. But Garrison Savannah and Cool Ground in recent years are horses who won at Cheltenham when Liverpool was supposed to be the target. The National weights place him within 6lb of Master Oats, and 4lb of Jodami, and if he goes to the Festival, his cause will be far from hopeless.